Reverend Gretta Vosper is a unique individual in the history of Canadian freethought insofar as I know the prior contexts of freethinking in Canada’s past in general, and in the nation for secular oriented women in particular.
Vosper is a Member of The Clergy Project and a Minister in The United Church of Canada (The UCC) at West Hill United Church, and the Founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity (2004-2016), and Best-Selling Author.
I reached out about the start of an educational series in early pages of a new chapter in one of the non-religious texts in the library comprising the country’s narratives. Vosper agreed.
Here we talk about what to expect with this series.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The nature of the modern online media creates electronic dependency for information while, at the same time, producing a certain visual-over-literate culture – or a tilt in the ratio of news and opinion disseminated to the public more from print towards the audiovisual. This series will incorporate print and audiovisual to bridge the gap. Regarding the content, why this series? What will be the topics covered, in general, through it?
Rev. Gretta Vosper: For many, many years, the caricature of the secular humanist has been of someone who rages against religion, and is so tied to their hatred of it, that when they get together with other secular humanists, that’s all they have to talk about. With glee, they remind themselves of every heinous insult religion has perpetrated against the human race (all life on the planet, actually), and leave feeling reaffirmed and bolstered in their secular worldview. The caricature of atheists is even worse, fueled over the last several years by atheism’s Four Horsemen – the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett – all of whose writing is particularly vitriolic toward religion or belief in anything that bears resemblance to a theistic, supernatural god, and the god called God in particular.
I get it. I have little mind to protect the theistic father-god (please use lower case for that) who resides somewhere in the heavens or a parallel supernatural universe, and has the power to capriciously interfere in our lives. Or, of course, any other god believed able to do so. But I’m tired of those stuck-in-their-hatred-of-religion caricatures being the only way many ever encounter secular humanists and atheists. And I’m tired of those who live up to that stereotype and continue to stew in their anger at religion without engaging in reasonable dialogue with anyone who might change their minds. Sikivu Hutchinson, in an address to the American Humanist Association a few years ago, challenged those in the audience to get over their “mono-maniacal obsession with religion.” She’s right. That needs to happen.
I’m also tired – really tired – of theologians who have an extremely (perhaps I should be kind and use the word “highly”) nuanced understanding of god that in no way resembles the classic, theistic, interventionist god most people think the word “god” describes but which allows them to dismiss atheists and secular humanists as having created a “straw man” god. By stretching the word “god” over something it was never intended to mean, and does not mean to the average person on the street, clergy let those sitting in the pews before them reassure themselves that “the minister still believes in God.” Clergy continue to refuse to bear responsibility to their people for having themselves dissected and dismissed, decades ago, the theistic, interventionist god they now label a straw man. They swagger with the superiority of their educated understanding of “god” and scoff at the simplistic arguments atheists and secular humanists provide them. It’s the vicious refrain heard in the kindergarten playground, “You’re stupid!” “No! You’re stupid!” “No! You’re stupid!” And on and on it goes.
Over the past five years, because I began to use the term “atheist” to describe my beliefs, I’ve been dismissed and maligned by many of my colleagues for openly condemning the god called “God”, that supernatural, capriciously interventionist god of the Abrahamic religions. On social media, one colleague stated that he would be fine if I was an “a-theist” but that I wasn’t; I was an “atheist” and so should be stripped of my credentials. In my opinion, the only difference between “a-theist” and “atheist” is bigotry, the former an enlightened theological position, the latter suffering the accretions of caricature after caricature, all of them worthy of hatred. Since my colleague had never had a conversation with me about what I do believe, his was an intransigent, ignorant bigotry, the worst kind.
The new Moderator of The United Church of Canada, Richard Bott, prior to his becoming moderator, conducted a highly skewed “survey”[i] in order to determine if the claim (purported to be mine) – that over half of UCC clergy were nontheists – was accurate. The Vancouver Sun was eager to report that I was wrong by 35-40 percentage points. Bott’s survey supposedly proved that 95% of clergy believed in God. Which looks like a sound finding until you remind yourself that there was no definition of god provided; every one of those 95 percentage points potentially represented a totally unique understanding of what the word “god” meant. In fact, two-thirds of respondents, who were mostly Bott’s Facebook followers, eschewed one or the other or both of a traditional god’s attributes – being supernatural or interventionist – either of which could be used to identify one as a nontheist. Less than 1% went out of their way to say that god was trinitarian, the doctrine against which I was being tested for orthodoxy at the time. The 95% result, hailed as proof that I was wrong, meant only that 95% of respondents could comfortably come up with a definition of god that personally suits them, but that may not have any of the characteristics or attributes of what most people on the planet think someone means when they use the word “god”. Even I can do that.
The United Church of Canada, the church I grew up in and which trained me, has been the most progressive Christian church in the world, in my opinion. Over the past sixty or more years, it has applied the tools of critical inquiry to the stuff of religion and much of that stuff has fallen away as a result. It has, to its detriment, however, continued to converse in language that is archaic, arguing, as most mainline Protestant denominations do, that all we need to do is teach our people that we no longer mean what those words meant in the past. Doing that, however, led to a serious falling away of members and an inexorable decline in church membership. And no, those who left did not flee to more conservative churches; those churches have declined right alongside the UCC. They left because the UCC invited them to think deeply about the Christian story. In doing so, they thought or read or talked their way beyond the doctrines of the past. Still, the church seemed wedded to the past, demanding that all, regardless of their belief or lack of it, continue to “worship” in the traditional language of Christianity. Many simply got sick of the dissembling and left. With nowhere else to go. They simply left.
So now we get to my concerns and why I stay in the church and do the work I do. Because, unfortunately, socially conscious civic engagement is positively correlated with church participation. Those who go to church and grow strong social bonds there have a higher subjective well-being; they are more likely to volunteer in the wider community, to donate philanthropically, and to vote than those who do not. The last generation to remain in the pews, the last “Christian” generation in Canada, is now in the last decade or so of life. As it draws closer and closer to death’s portal, our communities and country will suffer significantly from the loss of a level of civic engagement we have taken for granted. We have not recognized the importance of church engagement to the social values we share. Already, CanadaHelps, an online portal for charitable donations, reports a significant loss of support and predicts that small charities being adversely affected may not survive. Our largest repository of social capital has been the church. The Canada that will continue on beyond the demise of its largest and most socially active denomination, The United Church of Canada, will be a much different country than we now know.
It isn’t the doctrinal beliefs or the personal piety that drives the subjective well-being of those who attend church regularly. It is the power realized when people fall in love with being together, as previous generations of church-goers did. We need to find ways to create communities that exist without the traditional beliefs and language of Christianity and other theistic religions. And we need to recreate the conditions that allowed people to experience the joy of being together in rich, values focused communities. That is the enduring gift that religious participation provided. We need to distill that gift and provide it without the trappings of religious belief.
So that’s why we’re having this conversation. I love the selflessness of my country and I want to see it strengthened, not watch it disappear. Finding ways to engage those beyond belief in communities of resilience is my passion. I haven’t figured it all out, but I know that making that little bit of difference now, before the UCC and other progressive religious communities dwindle and die, we may be able to stave off the dragons of sheer corporatism and social isolation that trends suggest may be our future. I believe that those of us skilled in creating and sustaining values-based communities – many of us nurtured in the church – have much to offer. We will welcome a future beyond the beliefs that divide but we must work to ensure that future is rich in social capital and so, too, in compassion and the social responsibility that engenders it.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gretta.
[i] Bott’s survey was initially introduced exclusively to his own Facebook fans; my name was used in its introduction and very likely prejudiced the responses provided; in an attempt to get a less-skewed result, Bott subsequently sent it to presbyteries across the country, many of which refused to forward it to clergy without permission to do so; the end result of the survey’s process meant that it had almost no statistical validity.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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